No longer the simplistic process envisioned by its pioneers, recycling now embraces a variety of technologies and business strategies.
The annual Elements issue of MSW Management magazine asks industry professionals to peer into our crystal ball and forecast where our profession is headed. As of November 2011, the Recycling and Special Waste technical division is the largest of the seven technical divisions of SWANA. That is the trend this author expects to continue, simply because recycling has evolved to encompass various business types. The word recycling has its origin in the 1920s as a technical term for the oil refining industry. The more traditional modern definition didn’t come into use until the 1960s and didn’t get widespread use until the Earth Day celebrations of the 1970s. Today, the word’s original meaning has been lost, and recycling has evolved to a diverse industry with over $236 billion in annual revenues and employing over 1.1 million people, according to figures from the 2001 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) US Recycling Economic Information Study.
The modern recycling economy includes well-established residential sectors such as curbside recycling of traditional commodities like bottles, cans, and newspapers. It also includes traditional commercial recycling sectors like OCC and steel. There are also enterprising ventures involving less-traditional commodities such as shingles, tires, electronics, and yardwaste. And though the management of universal and special wastes such as hazardous materials and infectious wastes are not (currently) within the generally accepted definition of recycling, the term is evolving to include the proper environmental management of all waste materials. As what we call “recycling,” expands to meet the changing cultural norms, the industry will only continue to expand. However, the desire to minimize waste has a long history before recycling become part of the modern vocabulary.
In the past few years, one of the most frequently seen applications of the term recycling is its use in relationship to zero waste, a philosophy that encourages the creation and use of products in a manner so that all byproducts and end products can be recycled or reused. A commonly cited formal definition of the term comes from the Zero Waste International Alliance: “Zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal, or plant health.”
An increasing number of cities and companies are announcing plans to go zero waste. SWANA has reformatted its former annual recycling conference, “Thinking Outside the Blue Box,” into a new agenda, “The Road to Zero Waste.” This change was very well received by attendees last year. (Disclosure note: This author has been on the conference planning committee for several years.) Is zero waste merely the vogue word of the day, or does the concept represent a true paradigm shift on how we will approach recycling and waste reduction in the future? This author doesn’t think either assumption is correct. Zero waste is a concept that had been around for quite a while before the term came into wide use. Just as the definition of recycling has evolved, there are precursors to this movement.
Henry Ford is probably best known for his assembly-line method of mass production. Yet, he is certainly one of the forefathers of zero waste. He coauthored with Samuel Crowther a book called Today and Tomorrow (1926), which describes his attitude toward waste. “We treat each tree as wood until nothing remains which is serviceable as wood, and then we treat what remains as a chemical compound to be broken down into other chemical compounds, which we can use in our business ... We have a large salvage department, which apparently earns for us twenty or more million dollars a year.” However, he also remarked, “Why should we have so much to salvage? Are we not giving more attention to reclaiming than to not wasting?” That simple self-analysis prompted him to develop many innovations in waste reduction.
The concept of reducing waste and finding alternative disposal options has been around since the beginning of industry as a cost-reduction mechanism. Many governments are also taking a closer look at their waste disposal bills. Zero waste programs have a potentially high implementation cost as additional resources are devoted to collecting and segregating an increasing number of materials. Yet, there is the potential for a long-term economic benefit. Although governments are not the producers of materials, they have historically been responsible for disposal of used materials.
Producer take-back programs or extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a waste management strategy that assigns the producer of a product the responsibility for the product beyond the retail sale. This typically involves the establishment of a program where consumers can return products, and the producer will be responsible for the disposal, through recycling, landfilling, or other appropriate means.
The choice of the word producer has a specific intent in EPR, as opposed to the more common term of “manufacturer.” Producers are those who own a brand, license, or trademark of a product that is being distributed for sale. The producer is often the manufacturer. In such complex products as electronics, however, there may be several manufacturers of different components. Assembly of these components may be performed by another company. In this global economy, the manufacture and assembly may occur in several locations as well. These factors make it difficult to assign responsibility to a specific manufacturer, since many may be involved. Regardless of how many groups play a role in bringing a product to market, there is ultimately one entity who is responsible for the product: the producer.
There have been some industry arguments that the producer of the waste is actually the consumer—that through the process of consumption the consumer has in turn produced a waste product and therefore should be responsible for what happens to it. Product stewardship programs have sometimes been offered as a middle ground on the subject of who is ultimately responsible. Product stewardship advances the idea that those who touch a product, regardless of where in the life cycle of the product, have a shared responsibility to ensure that the product has a minimal negative impact on the environment. This involves the design, manufacture, packaging, transportation, use, and ultimate disposal phase. This shared approach attempts to fairly distribute responsibility among all the affected parties. Unfortunately, since no one is specifically assigned a responsibility, the catalyst to promote waste reduction and recycling is absent and nothing is usually accomplished.
EPR programs offer a much more specific and simple premise. The producer of a product assumes the responsibility for managing the disposal of the product when it reaches its end life. This approach grants local governments financial and operational relief as they have a set disposal process in place. In theory, this will allow inventive manufacturers to develop products that have smaller environmental impacts than their current products. For example, in the United Kingdom, DuPont used to sell paint to automobile manufacturers, such as Ford. However, they made the change to selling a painting service instead. Although I haven’t seen any actual figures, I believe that simply changing the business model has resulted in less paint being wasted and therefore less paint needing to be disposed of.
There are no national EPR programs in the United States, but several states have created their own product stewardship councils to research and possibly implement EPR legislation. This includes New York, Vermont, Texas, California, and the Northwest (combined Oregon and Washington). Resolutions in support of EPR programs have been adopted by the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. Canada has implemented several EPR programs that operate on a provincial level.
Electronics and their frequent obsolescence has often been the driving force in attempting passage of EPR legislation. Several manufacturers have free take-back programs for their old electronics, including Apple, Dell, Lexmark, and Toshiba. Other manufacturers, Epson and Canon among them, charge a small fee to take back their electronics. Even when materials are not hazardous, there may be tremendous disposal costs associated with some products due to their sheer abundance. This author often wonders what the collective national disposal bill was for the estimated unsolicited 2 billion AOL compact and floppy discs that were distributed earlier this decade.
EPR programs may be voluntary or mandated by government legislation. Csll2Recycle is a well-known voluntary program in the US and Canada. This take-back program accepts rechargeable batteries and cell phones at no charge. All program costs are covered by the Rechargeable Battery Corp. Manufacturers fund the program by paying a licensing fee to use Call2Recycle’s battery recycling seals on their products.
Industry leaders are big supporters of voluntary EPR programs. In September 2011, a new organization, the Product Management Alliance, was formed by several producers. Its purpose is to “support voluntary market-based extended producer responsibility efforts and voluntary incentives for increased recovery and sustainable product and package design. Its founding members represent the carpet, electronics, toys, paper, packaging and transportation materials, mattresses, plastics, personal goods, and pharmaceuticals industries.”
Voluntary EPR programs do play a role in waste management. When dealing with products that have a high residual value even past their normal life span, such as refillable ink cartridges or batteries, market forces will create a mechanism for extracting such financial gains. Even in the absence of formal industry take-back programs, local entrepreneurs, (some may call them scavengers) will collect the items for profit. Not all waste products are easy or cost effective to dispose of. For that reason, this author believes that mandatory EPR programs are a necessity in some industries. The RBRC program that I mentioned has been in existence for over 15 years but only has a recovery rate of only about 12%. In 2002 the carpet industry created an independent third-party organization, known as Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE). 2010 figures show that less than 5% of carpeting was recycled, resulting in 2.9 million tons being disposed.
There needs to be a balanced approach in developing EPR programs. There are some commodities that are being well handled due to market forces. But other industries need the supervision of regulation; ideally national regulation so that producers are not having to comply with a complex web of different programs across the states or provinces.
EPR programs are usually funded entirely by the manufacturer, but alternate financing models exist. In some EPR programs, the costs may be shared by the manufacturer and the local municipality. For example, the electronics EPR program in Maine requires the producers to cover the actual recycling costs but the government covers the costs of collection. The key aspect of an EPR program is having the producer involved. Just having a take-back program exist does not make it EPR. For example, about half the states in the US have an advance tire disposal fee. This alleviates the financial burden that many jurisdictions have in disposing of waste tires. However, since these are often municipal programs with the costs covered by the consumer, the producer has no financial incentive to improve the longevity of the product or the waste minimization during manufacturing. In addition, the budget funds created by these advance fees runs the risk of being raided for other purposes during tough budgetary cycles. It is important for any financing program to include a mechanism for “orphan waste,” where no brand can be identified or the manufacturer has gone out of business and no successor can be found.
Educating the Public
Beyond the creation of EPR programs, consumers must also be part of the waste solution. They must make use of the appropriate take-back programs when they exist. Consumers make environmental decisions every day with their purchasing dollars. They also make disposal decisions when they are done with their product. It doesn’t matter if the product is a hamburger, a sofa, or a computer. There eventually will be some discards, though the time frame will differ depending on the item. There are two key educational components that waste providers, both public and private, must have available for their customers. First, people must be educated about what is expected of them, such as how to properly sort their waste, or when and where to bring back specific items for recycling. Second, once the practical education hurdle is surmounted, people must be motivated to actually comply with the rules of which they have been informed.
Since our industry is rapidly evolving, and the rules of waste disposal and recycling are constantly changing, print media is frequently a common choice for communicating the changes. Usually, television and radio cannot capture the complexity of program nuances. Their frequent role is oriented toward changing behavior and not on the details of specifically how to implement that change. And in spite of the preponderance of print media, it fails to meet the needs of a significant portion of the population.
The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences conducted a large-scale assessment of adult literacy in 1992 and 2003. It found that about 40% of adults were either at basic or below basic proficiency, and 22% would have difficulty interpreting instructions in printed materials. The Canadian Council on Learning found that 48% of its country’s residents are semiliterate, lacking even the literacy skills necessary for daily living. In addition, both countries have additional literacy challenges from immigrant populations and various languages in common use.
Addressing literacy issues is beyond the expertise of our industry, but we must develop creative methods for addressing this real problem. For example, San Francisco is making greater usage of photographs in their printed materials as opposed to long lists of items. In spite of our innovations, we are overall a conservative industry and have been slow to adopt more modern communication means such as social media. Although almost every company has a web page, we have been slow to adopt Web 2.0. Just like the term recycling has evolved to meet the changing marketplace, our communication efforts also must evolve to meet the changing demographics. Ultimately, recycling exists to protect our environment, and we all have a vested interest in that goal. Different factions often disagree on how to best achieve that goal, but that will not negate the continued expansion of the definition of recycling or the creation of new programs to meet the new recycling needs.
Behavior and behavior change must be considered significant factors in the program planning stages of solid waste collection programs. The success of collection programs relies on user participation. Without user participation, perceived benefits of recycling will not materialize.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If the biggest, most fuel-efficient hybrid recycling truck rolls by my house but I haven’t any blue boxes at the curb, will my pop cans still be recycled?
Recycling program managers (and all solid waste managers, for that matter) need to be prepared to listen to, and act upon, user-driven feedback regarding collection program design.
Gone will be the days of using public consultation to confirm what we have already decided upon; we must be ready to truly listen to our customers/users/citizens. An increasingly savvy consumer base knows what it wants and is getting used to obtaining it. Customers are demanding it in return for their participation. Not only that, but customers will call us out if they sense we’re pulling the wool over their eyes. And they will broadcast it. They will take their frustrations, not to us so that we can address them, but to the masses via technologies like the Internet. By then it is too late.
The key to communicating our way to success rests in having conversations with the public before a program is in place, not after. We cannot continue to expect years of learned behavior to change overnight just because we think it should. Our customers need to be a part of the decision-making process so that they are willing, and commit to, making the behavior change on their own.
Author's Bio: Josephine Valencia is the former director of SWANA’s Recycling and Special Waste Technical Division. She is currently the assistant director for San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department.